Thursday, April 30, 2009

In With the New

Don't you just love your passport? I think my passport is one of the coolest things I own. It's the perfect portable record of years of international travel. From the first trip to the Dominican Republic, to my recent sojourn in Paris, my little blue book has seen it all. So I wasn't quite sure how to feel when the ten-year anniversary of receiving my first passport came and went. On the one hand, I was proud to mark a decade of going abroad. On the other hand, a U.S. passport is only valid for ten years, and I didn't want to have to give up my trusty travel partner.

Desire for future travels won out, and I filled out my forms, sent in my photos, my $75 check, and my passport and waited for the new one to arrive. After a couple of weeks, I received two packages in the mail: one contained the new passport and the other held my old one. Is it just me, or are the new U.S. passports a little heavy on depictions of eagles? Ok, we get it, it's the national symbol. Does it have to overshadow my own picture on the main page? Devoid of any eagles, but filled with visas, stamps, and a pink French work permit, my old passport has finally been retired.

Before I could get too sentimental, I read the brochure that came with the new passport. Its cover proudly proclaims, "With your U.S. Passport the World is Yours!" I hope that proves to be as true in my next decade of travel as it did in my last.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Friends in Foreign Places

Last week, a colleague asked me if I had any overseas contacts that could help her with a specific work project. She told me what she was looking for, and I told her I had the perfect person for the job. The exchange got me thinking about one of my favorite benefits of traveling: international networking. Spend enough time overseas and you start to develop a list of foreign friends, colleagues, acquaintances and exes that turn your social circle into a veritable United Nations. Even when you eventually (maybe) return home, there will still be a few people you'll stay in contact with forever. Your worldview will never be the same.

Having friends and contacts all over the world is fun for so many reasons. When you travel, you've got people to visit. When they travel, they visit you. When a big news story breaks in their country, you've got someone to give you the real scoop. They teach you about their culture and their language. When the ones you don't talk to on a regular basis send you an email out of the blue it brightens your day. The world seems smaller when far off countries become that place your friend lives rather than some abstract idea. You get to say things like, "Oh yes, well my friend from Guyana will be in town next week..." It's fun because your world is never limited to where you actually are at any given moment in time. International connections expand your horizons.

Of course, you don't have to travel to globally grow your social circle. The Internet allows us to make connections without ever meeting in person. Writing Parisian Spring has put me in touch with other bloggers and people who read my blog all over the world. For those I've actually spent face-to-face time with, the Internet helps us keep in touch and reconnect in the future. And as I saw last week, it can also help you make connections between your connections. But my favorite was to build an international network is still by traveling. It's just plain fun.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Two Wheels in Washington

I had heard rumors of a bike-sharing program in Washington, DC, but I had never really seen it in action. Did it truly exist? As a temporary resident of Paris I used to love renting Vélibs for quick jaunts along the Seine, weekend tours of the city, or late night post-revelry transportation; if there was a similar stateside program, it certainly hadn't attained the ubiquitous nature of its French counterpart. Until, maybe, now. On the day before Earth Day, Washington, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty announced he wants his city's Vélib-esque "SmartBike DC" program to expand from its current size of 10 stations to 100 stations, with over 1,000 rental bikes available to the residents of DC. Paris' cycle share has become a smash hit amongst Parisians, can our nation's capital do the same? I set out in search of a SmartBike DC rental station to find out.

The station I visited is located right outside the Foggy Bottom-George Washington University metro station. Hang a left at the top of the escalators and there they are. One of the first things I noticed was that the bikes were very basic, just like Vélib. No frills, only function. Two bikers were standing nearby so I started up a conversation: How does the program work? How many people are members of SmartBike DC? Where are the stations located? And why on earth don't these bikes have baskets on the front like the ones in Paris? Jerry, one of the guys I met, was a wealth of information. He told me that a subscription only cost $40 per year, and that a couple of hundred people had already signed up (Update: after sending Jerry the link to this story, he replied to let me know that it's actually a couple of thousand people). Both Jerry and the other renter were trying to return their two-wheelers, but had been thwarted by a full docking station. The same thing used to happen to me in Paris, proving that no system is perfect.

Would I try SmartBike DC and love it the way I tried and loved Vélib? Unfortunately, probably not. For starters, the program only operates in the District, and I live across the Potomac in Arlington. You can't even take the bikes outside of DC city limits. What's more, bikes are only available between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Not that I have a strong need for a bike in the middle of the night, but you never know (see reference to post-revelry use above). Three of the things I loved most about Vélib - wide city and suburb availability, use at all hours, basket for market wares or bag - can't be said for SmartBike. Nevertheless, I congratulate Jerry and everyone else who is getting this system off the ground in DC. Bike sharing has transformed the French capital and think it could do the same for the American one as well. If they ever extend into my neck of the woods, I'll be happy to join their ranks.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Clean Sweep in Paris

Americans have been known to occasionally complain about the cleanliness of Paris. Many, upon landing in the City of Lights, are surprised to find that this glamorous European capital is rife with less-than-shiny accessories. There's a fair amount of graffiti, public garbage cans are an eyesore of see-through green, and would it kill someone to take a power hose to the métro from time to time? Don't even get me started on the dog poo. Well, thankfully, Americans are not the only ones concerned about the state of Parisian streets. According to an article I stumbled across on Reuters, we can count on at least one other group of people to also care about cleanliness and, even better, to actually do something about it: Japanese expatriates.

Calling themselves the Greenbirds, this group of dedicated expats takes to the streets once a month and attempts to spruce the place up a bit. Their most recent cleaning expedition took place on the enormous, and enormously popular, Champs-Elysées; an impressive feat considering the city's most famous avenue is constantly under attack by trash-wielding humans. Established in Tokyo in 2003, Greenbirds expanded to Paris in 2007, with the goal of making Paris "more beautiful." I can't decide if that's a lofty or easy objective.

To be fair, the city of Paris really does try to keep itself clean, even without the help of eager expatriates. You can't go a single day without seeing the sweepers with their ubiquitous green jumpsuits (intended to coordinate with the green garbage cans?) and old fashioned-looking brooms. They flood the streets with water and brush everything down the gutter while trash mobiles suck garbage off sidewalks and overnight crews get everything ready for a fresh morning start. Nevertheless, Paris can get dirty, fast. Color coordinated or not, the massive Propreté de Paris campaign just can't seem to do it all. And while Greenbirds claim they clean the streets of Paris to make things nice for the thousands of Japanese tourists who flock to France's capital city every year, they're probably making the Americans happy as well. Now, if only they could convince people to pick up after their dogs.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Crêpe Attack

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that last week I had a serious craving for crêpes. They've been missing from my diet ever since I moved back to the U.S. in August and I guess I just couldn't take it anymore. All I could think about was that light, fluffy dough warm off the griddle and made just the way I like it: with beurre and sucre. Cassonade if it's available. Luckily, this craving has a very simple solution in Washington, DC: There is a fabulous crêpe stand at Eastern Market that has just what you're looking for. With a beautiful forecast in store for Saturday, I made plans to head out in the early afternoon and treat myself to a snack, French style.

I tried making crêpes at home once, but it was a total disaster. I don't know if it was because I didn't follow the recipe correctly, or didn't have the appropriate pan, or didn't have the technique down, though I think it was a combination of the three. Add in the fact that I'm not French and it's no wonder I failed on my first try. Living in France taught me nothing if it didn't teach me that Frenchmen and women have an almost instinctual knowledge of crêpe making. They know the recipe by heart, they have the right tools (a flat pan, well greased), they know when and how to flip it so it doesn't tear or land on the floor. Basically, they're crêpe experts. I mean, making crêpes looks like it should be easy, kind of like making pancakes. But the truth is that it takes skills. Making crêpes is an art; an art I'd rather leave up to the French. And the guys at Eastern Market.

After wandering the market and finally making my way to the crêpe stand, I noticed that everyone in DC had the same idea I had. The line was crazy long! With the hottest sun of the year beating down on me, I didn't feel much like waiting, craving notwithstanding. Disappointment was ready to set in until my eyes caught a sign for a sorbet stand. For $4 I could get a heaping serving of cool and refreshing pineapple peach sorbet without waiting in line. It was a no-brainer. And while the sorbet was everything I hoped it would be (cool, refreshing, tasty), I have to admit that the craving is still hanging around. I might have to brush off my crêpe-flipping skills, after all.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tourist Invasion

Why is it that some travelers find it so difficult to make even the slightest attempt at blending in? It seems like it should be an easy enough proposition: You take a look around to see what others are doing and you try to do likewise. But after days of feeling inexplicably overwhelmed by spring breakers and cherry blossom viewers, a colleague offered an explanation for my sense of invasion. "They don't blend in at all, do they?" she said, "They don't even try. Tourists in DC are just so obvious." I thought she might be on to something there.

From dressing head-to-toe in American flag clothing, to letting their kids treat the subway handrails like monkey bars on a playground, I started to think that tourists in DC have far from mastered the art of respectful travel. They try to shove their paper metro tickets in turnstiles that are microchip card only. They move in non self-aware crowds, taking up all the space on our generous sidewalks and squeezing out the average resident. Sometimes I wonder if they realize that there are people in this city who are trying to conduct their daily lives. We're trying to go to work, to class, to the store, and home. Is it too much to ask that you take 30 seconds to notice that Washingtonians don't stand on the left side of the escalator and therefore you shouldn't either? How difficult is this? We've even put signs up in the trains calling such non-right side standers "Escalefters," in an apparently vain attempt to inform outsiders of our local social norms. It might sound unbelievable, but I notice the American tourists in this American city way more that I ever did in Paris. What gives?

For many, Washington, DC is a logical choice for a vacation. There are loads of free things to see and do, it's an incredibly family-friendly city, and it's the nation's capital giving it a natural draw. I fully support anyone who decides to pay us a visit (especially my dearly missed friends and family!). However, I can't help but be reminded of how doing like the Romans do has always increased my enjoyment of any given trip. Am I way out of line in thinking DC tourists should attempt the same? Maybe I'm expecting too much, or being too critical. After all, there are plenty of DC visitors who don't turn themselves into spectacles. Maybe I need to give the ones who do the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I need to get over it. Maybe, just maybe, I'm the one who needs a vacation.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Travling Holidays

Spending a holiday overseas can bring on any number of feelings. You might be excited to gain a new perspective on an old tradition. You might feel sad or lonely at the prospect of being far away from loved ones. You might even feel absolutely nothing at all, especially if the particular holiday you're missing back home has little or no relevance in your current location. Last Easter I was in Paris enjoying lots of delicious French chocolate, and while this year I wasn't overseas, I also wasn't in the place I truly call home. So when a friend who is also not from the DC area announced she was throwing an Easter bash for her similarly displaced peers, I immediately sent in my RSVP.

The guests came from all over the country, with California, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Minnesota, bien sur, all in attendance. We ate our Easter ham, our deviled eggs and our green bean casserole with gusto. A gorgeous pineapple upside down cake and a few bottles of wine rounded out the night. With so many strangers in the room, things started out quiet, but gradually grew into an energetic frenzy of easy laughter and conversation. The whole event felt not unlike the various Christmases and Thanksgivings I've spent overseas where everyone who is not-from-here comes together to create a home away from home for the holidays. And with Washington being the transient city that it is, I imagine we weren't the only group of singles, couples, students, travelers, and young professionals un-traditionally celebrating last week's traditions of Easter and Passover.

As the evening drew to a close we divvied up the leftovers and gave hugs all around. We also thanked my friend for having so generously fed, housed, and entertained the wayward masses, for without her, some of us might not have had any plans for the holiday. As is always the case with big celebrations spent away from home, part of me wished I could have been back in Minnesota spending time with familiar faces, but the part of me that loves to travel and have new experiences was grateful for yet another celebratory meet-up. Other than eating a French chocolate Easter bunny, it's one of the best ways to enjoy a holiday.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Second Time Around in Strasbourg

Mentioning Strasbourg in Monday's post really got me thinking. I started remembering all the things I loved about this border town, and wondering why I never went back. It's a perfect candidate for a second visit: I haven't been there in eight years, and I only spent a measly 2 days trying to cram in everything the city has to offer. Of course, there are a lot of cities and villages in France that I haven't seen in years, or that I only briefly passed through, but not all of them captured my attention quite like Strasbourg.

Almost everything I remember about this city that used to belong to the Germans, then the French, then the Germans, and finally the French again, is something I enjoyed. There was the little medieval neighborhood called La Petite France, with its adorable half-timbered houses and flowing canals, the gorgeous Gothic cathedral with only one spire and a really cool astronomical clock, the modern tramway that made navigating the city a breeze, the outdoor zoo that housed my favorite animal (pink flamingo), and the beautiful Rhine river on whose banks the city rests. Just about the only thing I didn't like was the cold. I went in December, before the famous Christmas markets opened, but well after the weather had turned wintry. This is not advised.

One of the things about Strasbourg I didn't get to experience as much as I would have liked is the regional food and drink. An undergrad's budget generally only allows for a baguette and cheese diet, which, admitedly, is not an entirely bad way to spend meals, but I'd really like to sample some of the city's finer dining options. With my (minimally) better post-grad school financial situation, I could enjoy the region's German-influenced (read: lots of pork) cuisine and sip on dry Alsacian reislings. Not to mention the fact that this part of France is the country's main beer-producing locale. Need I say more?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Urban Oasis

You might know that Teddy Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States, was a huge nature buff, but did you know there is an island in the Potomac named after him? Roughly positioned between the Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington, VA, and such well known DC landmarks as the Kennedy Center and Georgetown, Theodore Roosevelt Island is a wild yet tranquil memorial to one of this country's greatest leaders. And since it's within walking distance of chez moi, I finally decided to check it out for myself. My objective for going there was twofold: to explore an offshore nature preserve, and to avoid the cherry blossom crowds that were sure to be clogging up the mainland. I'm happy to report success.

As an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed hunting, was considered a great naturalist, and led scientific expeditions to Africa and South America, I'd like to think Roosevelt would have been pleased to see his island memorial. Other than an enormous stone pavilion featuring a larger-than-life statue of the man himself, most of the island has been largely left to its own devices. An elevated boardwalk lets you explore the swamp and marsh without trampling all over it, while rock and sand outcroppings offer lots of opportunities for getting close to the water's edge. Highlights of the visit included spotting a slithering snake and watching ducks play in the mud. Downing a sandwich and some crackers on a park bench was pretty fun too.

In addition to being the 26th president, an avid outdoorsman, a hunter, and a naturalist, Teddy Roosevelt was also a conservationist. Lucky for us, he managed to grant federal protection for approximately 230 million acres of land. That's equivalent to the size of all of the East coast states from Maine to Florida. Today, as we try to pass legislation and change habits that would protect the environment, we should look to Roosevelt for inspiration. A century ago, he recognized the need to enjoy nature while at the same time acting as its steward. A man who was ahead of his time? Possibly. A president who deserves an island preserve in the Potomac? Most definitely.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Tomorrow is Another Day

No matter how much you plan, no matter your best intentions, if you travel, someday, somewhere, something is bound to go wrong. You'll miss a flight, or get lost in a new city, or lose something of value, or get sick; the possibilities are endless. Merde happens. Like most travelers, I have a regular encyclopedia of experiences that were none too pleasant at the time. Is it just me, or do mishaps seems amplified in stressfulness when they happen while traveling? To ease the pain, there's something that everyone tells themselves while living through an unplanned travel detour: this will be really funny tomorrow.

Though difficult to believe at the time, I've found this statement to be largely, incredibly true. The stories my friends and I tell over, and over, and over again - the ones that get bigger and better and funnier each time we tell them - are the stories of events that totally sucked at the time. With the luxury of distance, disasters are the best on-the-road stories a traveler could hope for. The time my friends and I booked an early morning train from Cannes to Strasbourg, all separately missed our alarms, frenetically scrambled to get to the station with seconds to spare, had to leave one person behind at the station because she forgot her passport (which we needed to be able to use our eurorail passes), and spent the long ride north comforting yours truly who was so distraught she spent almost the entire first leg of the ride in the shaky, disgusting train bathroom getting sick, has turned into one of our favorite laugh-generating "remember when?" stories.

Why do travel disasters make for the best post-travel stories? Is it because everyone loves a tragedy, or at least one that eventually turns out ok? No one was every seriously hurt during my travel mishaps. We all survived, and if anything, came out stronger on the other end. Maybe it's because these events are sort of a badge of honor. Later, you can say, "yeah, I was practically hugging that toilette on the train, and I lived to tell the tale!" Or, "yeah, I stayed in a really bad hostel, it was awesome!" Of course, you weren't laughing at the time. You were freaking out, overly stressed, frustrated, or angry, or scared...and telling yourself it would be funny tomorrow.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

April Flowers

Washington, DC is a heavily touristed city, but there are two times during the year when that statement becomes even more true. One of them is the 4th of July, and the second is currently in full swing: The National Cherry Blossom Festival. It's an annual celebration that celebrates the 1912 gift of 3,000 cherry blossom trees, or Sakura as they're known in Japanese, from the then mayor of Tokyo. Meant to symbolize the enduring friendship between our two countries, the trees have proved to be the gift that keeps on giving. Every spring they erupt in a sea of pink and white as their blossoms mark the unofficial end of winter in the DC area. Easily felled by stiff winds or a spring storm, it's important to get out to see them early on. I did just that earlier this week, and was not disappointed.

Most of the cherry blossom trees are near the tidal basin, which is a man-made inlet next to the Potomac River. In fact, the basin and the walking path that encircles it are completely lined with Sakura. When they bloom, it creates a gorgeous ring of soft color, the perfect backdrop for shots of the nearby Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument. Cherry blossoms are so pretty that you have the urge to walk with your eyes pointed upward, gazing at all the pink and white, but this is not a good idea. Some of the branches of the trees are low enough for a 5' 8" person like myself to run into with her head. Best to keep your eyes straight ahead and enjoy the sensation of walking through a tunnel of flowers.

Washington's two-week National Cherry Blossom Festival isn't just about trees, it's also has a jam-packed calendar of blossom-related events. Everything from river tours to musical performances to bike rides to a soirée and reception at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum (seriously?) has been organized to celebrate the bloom. The Festival's main event is a parade being held this weekend on the streets of DC. But you don't have to do any of that to appreciate the delicate beauty of the cherry blossoms. You don't have to line a parade route, get on a boat, or visit a museum boasting lifelike replicas of the Obamas. All you have to do is stroll around the tidal basin on a warm spring night, camera in hand, and take in the view.